Sheriff admits more scrutiny needed in use of force cases

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by LINDA BYRON / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @LByronK5

KING5.com

Posted on May 11, 2011 at 10:20 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 9:43 AM

SEATTLE - Seattle computer consultant Jeff Gold will never forget his encounter with King County Sheriff's Deputy Matt Paul.

"He did a full body takedown on me from behind. I guess he swept my feet out from under me and then pushed my face into the pavement," Gold said.
           
Gold admits he antagonized Paul by taking pictures while the deputy was reprimanding people for drinking in a bus shelter, then by jaywalking. But Gold doesn't think he deserves what he got.
 
"I expected him to maybe yell at me and wag his finger, did not expect a full on body tackle and having my face smashed into the pavement," Gold said. “I don't see any circumstances where jaywalking results in blood flow.”
 
Gold was arrested for “obstructing an officer,” but never charged. He fired off an angry email to the Sheriff's Office.
 
"I wanted the incident investigated to the extent that I sincerely believed that the officer had overstepped his bounds,” said Gold.
 
Gold never got his investigation. A lapse that's hard to understand considering Paul is the same deputy who'd knocked a man into a wall a year earlier after a foot chase in downtown Seattle.  That incident was caught on surveillance tape.
 
“There but for the grace of God go I...I mean that could have been me easily,” said Gold after watching the video.
 
The case of Chris Harris was deeply upsetting. It’s still hard to watch the video of the blow that left Harris so brain damaged he can’t even feed himself.
 
"An investigation should be done into what happened," said Sarah Harris, the wife of Chris Harris.
 
Broken promises

The Sheriff promised accountability immediately after the Harris incident on May 10, 2009.

In a news release dated May 12, 2009, she announced that Paul was on paid leave. Detectives would complete their investigation within days. Then the file would go to the Internal Investigations Unit for policy review and possible discipline. And finally, Seattle Police Chief John Diaz would review the investigation to ensure that it was thorough, complete and without bias.
 
That’s not at all what happened. We wanted to know why, so we asked the King County Sheriff for an explanation.
 
"This was a very unique case,” said Sheriff Sue Rahr. “We did not have a process in place that would accommodate this unusual set of circumstances.”
 
Instead of taking swift action, the Sheriff’s Office seemed immobilized. The “Use of Force Incident Review” that’s typically done immediately, was put on hold and not completed for nine months, long after Paul had quietly returned to the street.
 
And even then, a key recommendation wasn’t followed — providing deputies “Use of Force Options/Defensive Tactics Training.”
 
Reporter: "Has there been any department wide re-training? Has there been any re-training of the officer?”
Sheriff: “Not as a result of this specific case. Again, this was a very unexpected, unique set of circumstances.”
 
Internal investigations never even got the case.  
 
Reporter:  "Why wouldn't you have your Internal Investigations Unit look to make sure no misconduct?"
Sheriff: “There was no need for that Linda we had witness statements, we had a very clear investigation.

 
She’s talking about the investigation done by her Major Crimes Unit. It was exhaustive including hundreds of pages of interviews and reports. But by failing to send the Harris case outside to another police department, Sheriff Rahr never got the second opinion she’d promised.
 
Reporter: "Did you do enough?"
Sheriff: "I think we did enough”

 
Pattern of problems

What no one did was take a blanket look at Paul's use of force over his five-and-a-half year career.   That is, until we reviewed his file last month.
           
We found 19 Use of Force cases and 7 complaints to Internal Investigations -- two of them a recently as December.
 
That's a lot of complaints as many officers go their entire careers without even one complaint.
 
Reporter: "Why is KING 5 the only one looking at this officer in the big picture?
Sheriff: “Well, you’re not the only one looking at him.”

Reporter: "But you can't tell me today if you think his use of force across the board throughout his career is acceptable?"
Sheriff: “Well, I can tell you that it's acceptable in the context of following the policy,” she said.

 
Change of heart

But after that interview, something unusual happened.
 
The sheriff asked us to come back. She said that she’d been asking the wrong questions about Deputy Paul and the department’s handling of his use of force cases.

"And frankly, it's a little embarrassing that you asked the right questions,” said Rahr. “I think you deserve an answer; I think the public deserves answers to those tough questions,” she said.
 
Rahr informed us that Deputy Paul was now being put on a “personal performance plan” and sent back to the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission for additional training.
 
"I do believe that he can make some different decisions and we want him to make some different decisions and we’re going to do that. I'm not going to go on television and trash one of my employees but I'm also not going to ignore a pattern that I'm concerned about,” said Rahr.
 
She promised the jaywalker would get his investigation. 

“To be honest, it fell through the cracks,” Rahr said.

And that outside review of the Harris case that she promised two years ago? It’s finally going to happen.
 
"I have complete confidence that it was a thorough objective investigation,” Rahr said.  I understand in a case that's this high profile, the necessity of having an outside agency review it as well.”
 
The Sheriff says she'll let KING 5 know as soon as she gets an outside agency on board to do the review.
 
Deputy Paul began 40 weeks of retraining earlier this week, to improve his communication skills and handling of crisis situations.
 
He will remain on the “personal improvement plan” for at least six months.

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